A group of travel bloggers stand in a small library, facing a keyboard. On the Caribbean island of Antigua, in a stunning resort studded with pineapples and palm trees, they are practicing their vocal warm ups.
“Ma-ma ma-ma ma-ma ma-ma-maaaaa!”
Behind the keyboard stands Mike King, a professional vocal coach and our choir master for the week. His mouth opens and shuts like a piece of elastic, his hands skipping along the plastic keys as the music flows.
“May-may may-may may-may may-may-mayyyyy!”
But why on earth are we singing in the Caribbean? Why am I suddenly part of a choir? Is a passion for singing a pre-requisite for being a blogger now?!
Let’s start at the beginning.
In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve barely written anything this past year. Dealing with my dad’s inevitable death – and then with the aftermath of all-encompassing grief – stopped every one of my steps in its tracks.
October to March was a dark, dark time. Yet somehow, as the sun began to appear more often and as the daffodils began to bloom in the park close to my house, I felt the stirrings of inspiration. Instead of watching Netflix and crying with the curtains closed, too exhausted to do anything else, I remembered what it was like to create.
I began to remember my passions again.
The major problem standing in my way was how rusty I felt. If your creative mind is like a mechanism of nuts, bolts, cogs and screws, it felt as if too many of my internal components hadn’t stretched themselves for months. That might not have been too problematic in itself — except I’d also spent those dark months scrolling passively and depressively through all my social feeds, lamenting that my co-creators were achieving fantastical things and moving their careers forward while I felt fundamentally STUCK.
Things first began to properly change when I attended a retreat in Spain – an experience I still can’t find the words to explain online just yet, except that it was one of the most surreal, magical, eye-opening, life-affirming, heart-lifting weeks of my life. I’d expected to face up to my compounded grief and loss in Spain, but I hadn’t been prepared for the physical side of the work we did. Aside from our daily yoga sessions each morning, we spent significant time lost in ‘intuitive movement’ – something which, if you’d asked me about beforehand, I’d have immediately shut down.
“Nope, not for me, definitely not!” I’d have said. ” I hate dancing. Always have.”
In actual fact? I bloody loved it.
For most of my life, I’ve unequivocally stated that I can’t dance. I get embarrassed on dance floors, I think I look stupid, and I usually try and avoid dancing as a general rule (except when I’ve drunk enough to not feel self conscious). Honestly? I can’t even remember what precipitated this opinion
But somehow, in Spain amongst this beautiful group of women, my body intuitively knew what to do. I managed to quieten my mind to the extent that it was patiently waiting in the background while my limbs skewed themselves into contortions I didn’t know I wanted to create.
It felt incredible. I felt truly changed by it: like I was embracing and setting free some true, deep part of myself which had been hidden for so long.
I left the Spanish coast with a newly formed group of soul sisters and a fierce pride in myself – and only a few days later, I checked into a flight bound for the Caribbean along with forty social media ‘influencers’ (the latest buzzword to describe what we do. I dispute this monicker wildly, and prefer the more humble ‘content creator’, but there we go).
Despite being good friends with many members of this Antigua crew, I was still nervous about being in such a big group. I’d just spent a week engaged in intense introspection, and suddenly I was with forty outgoing personalities, all with so much focus on the ‘outward’. I didn’t feel prepared for constant cameras, videos and social media updates – and to be honest, even being expected to be ‘on’ all the time felt exhausting.
I could never have guessed how much this outward behaviour would lift me up, and that it was exactly what I needed.
And it all started with the singing.
Joining a Caribbean choir
Our week in Antigua had been arranged by Traverse Events and the Antigua & Barbuda Tourism Authority for two reasons: firstly, to attend a small influencer conference, and secondly, to experience all the exciting adventures the island has to offer. Part of that excitement was the opportunity to join a singing workshop led by Mike King, who already runs singing retreats in Barbados and will soon do the same in Antigua.
While I don’t have the same mental block about singing as I do with dancing, I still haven’t sung regularly since I was at school. I used to love being in choirs, but like so many childhood passions it eventually faded out of my life completely, to the extent that when signing up for the Caribbean choir I felt the first stirrings of possible embarrassment. What if all my singing skills had totally vanished and I sounded awful?
Mike King was the perfect antidote. He’s unashamedly passionate about singing. Passionate about music. Passionate about bringing groups of people together – even those who protest that they’re terrible at singing and will just drag the whole group down – to sing.
And from our first practice together, it was obvious that collective passion had the power to completely override any of our nervousness.
Mike deftly explained how our week of choir rehearsals would play out: three morning practice sessions of two hours each, culminating in a little performance for our friends and other hotel guests at the end of the week. Before we had time to panic about singingin front of other people (!), song sheets were thrust into our hands and the stretching of our vocal cords began.
In next to no time we’d been divided into tenors, altos and sopranos, all belting out harmonies for Al Green’s ‘Let’s Stay Together’ – and we sounded pretty good.
But the more magical occurrence was how we all felt. Sheer joy and jubilation erupted in claps and cheers whenever a particularly gorgeous note rang out; utter pride at the end of a completed song; huge grins and hugging by the end of the session, as we all walked out of the room with grins we couldn’t shake.
“The energy in there was incredible!” my friend Shu said to me – and she was totally right. It was an intoxicating feeling to realise we’d created something unexpectedly beautiful out of nothing by working together.
Learning some comparative home truths
Later that day at the first Traverse conference sessions, I listened to Gemma Holmes talk about ‘comparanoia’ – something all too relevant in today’s online-obsessed world. As a fully-trained cognitive hypnotherapist, Gemma urged us to switch our usual narrative: instead of playing comparisons with the people you see as competitors, use their success as inspiration to instigate change and action in your own plans.
For me, this constant comparing with my peers rang disturbingly true – because deep down I’ve always known what’s at the root of it.
If I’m jealous that another blogger has written a book, it’s because I know that’s the ultimate dream for me – which means I have to actually DO SOMETHING about it. When I look at other social media influencers achieving great things it reminds me I’m not yet reaching out to the people and companies I’d love to work with because I’m afraid they might say no – but I have to take those leaps regardless, because that’s the best chance of actually achieving them.
A new way of thinking: our competitors are actually co-creators in our success, because they inspire us to be better.
Gemma’s session reminded me of a workshop I’d attended recently in London with the blogger Anna Hart, all about personal branding for bloggers. Anna had talked passionately about knowing your audience: who they are, why they keep coming back to your content, and what it is you’re offering them. More crucially for me, she stressed the importance of knowingwhich people you want to speak to – something which can really only be achieved by honing your unique selling point.
All my thoughts were swirling at this. Suddenly I was imagining my site, and by extension my brand, with different eyes. I saw it as a reader who might not know what they’re getting when they click on ‘Flora The Explorer’ – and I realised some more specific changes need to be on my blogging horizon.
I’ve spent so long explaining, “I write travel narratives!” but in all honesty that’s much too vague for me. What I’m really passionate about is the fascinating way my inner journeying affects my outer ones, and how mental health and grief change the way I see the world at large. The crux where travel and trauma meet is something I have a unique perspective on, and it’s up to me to take that idea further.
Cogs are turning slowly (despite the rust) – but until I work out the kinks, it’s back to Antigua.
What do influencers do in their natural habitat? They create.
When you send forty bloggers, photographers, YouTubers and Instagrammers to spend a week in Antigua, chances are they’re going to do exactly what you’d expect: they’ll utilise every moment to create content, in as many ways as possible.
I haven’t indulged that side of myself for a while, and it was so freeing to snap constant photos and scribble down notes about everything that interested me – but I also kept tabs on the way my friends and fellow content creators explored the island.
Some were vlogging to their cameras, others disappeared for little photoshoots or sat hard at work editing in the spare moments we had. Everyone had a different idea about how to interpret our collective experiences, and it was inspiring to watch.
The more I watched the other creators around me, the more I remembered just how damn GOOD it felt to be truly passionate about something. Moreover, to feel galvanised and excited about moving forward with all those beautiful, colourful, too-big-to-mention ideas which swirl around inside your head.
Realising the power in other people’s passion
One afternoon, I sat on the beach with a few bloggers who’ve been publishing content online even longer than my seven years of it. Someone suggested that ultimately we’re all each other’s competition – and I found myself switching the narrative.
“Call me naive,” I said, “But I still feel that being a blogger is about being part of a community first. I don’t think I would ever have reached the industry level I’m at now if I hadn’t made so many lasting connections with people who do the same!”
Instead of focusing on how many competitors there are in the blogging world, all vying for similar partnerships with similar organisations, I chose to see how inspiring all those creators are, and how lucky I am to work amongst people who are equally passionate about the same things I am.
Anything but a competition: three photographers are better than one!
And that’s when it hit me. As bloggers, as content creators, as influencers — whatever you want to call us – we’re the type of people to actively embrace the things that others won’t. We’re constantly in situations where unexpected activities are offered to us, and we’ve managed to rewire our minds to always think, “Hmm… that could feasibly be good content!”. So we go for it.
I remember being so scared of going caving in a Bolivian national park – but I did it, because I knew I could write about facing that fear. I remember almost backing out of white water rafting in Australia, but the thought of sacrificing an article about the topic forced me to say yes. (Ok, I haven’t actually written that article yet, but I WILL!)
It’s like the best kind of vicious cycle: we’re primed to challenge our comfort zones in order to perpetuate our passions.
A Caribbean singing performance at sunset
One evening, we gathered at the Outhouse at the very top of our resort. Ahead of us was the wide blue sea, flanked by bright pink blossoms. A keyboard, like usual; big speakers and three microphones. A palpable energy filled the little wooden structure as we glanced nervously at each other, wide grins hiding our vulnerable internal thought processes.
What if we didn’t sing as well as usual? What if nobody came to see us perform? What if, what if, what if?
But at sunset in the Caribbean, there were chills. Reverb on the mic which made everyone’s eyes open wider. Under piercing blue lights we sang our little blogger hearts out, and there was so much happiness and pride.
For the rest of the night, we sipped rum punch and danced under the stars. A group, brought together by our shared passions for creating and, this week at least, for singing. For art we’ve worked long and hard to be good at — and for the thrill of an unknown challenge.
What makes you unique?
For a long time I’ve felt both exhausted and confused at not feeling part of the blogging industry in the way I once was. At some point I got weighted down by negativity: I assumed my style of creativity wasn’t going to make me money, and I lost my passion in the face of being overwhelmed.
Luckily we’re all unique in the way we create. That’s what’s so utterly fantastic about it. If you’re getting too stuck in the professionalism of something you’re passionate about, try remembering why you started in the first place. Remember your initial passion and go with that as your primary focus.
For me? I forgot that writing feels like home – and sharing it with other people makes me feel like I’m flying. I adore the feeling when words pour out of my fingers – and so to hell with all the rest of it. I want to create. I live to create! And neither grief nor falling statistics will stop that.
So surround yourself with people full of passion. People who willingly push the boundaries of their industry and the boundaries they’ve imposed upon themselves. Look at your competitors and decide where the last line is. Are they “taking opportunities” from you? Or are they inspiring you to push forward further?
Passion is what drives all of us. Music. Art. Singing. Photography. Writing. All of it is pure, unbridled creativity. It’s the purest way to make a connection – and I can’t believe how easily we sometimes forget about that aspect.
Thank you so much to this gorgeous group of travel ‘influencers’ for putting the passion back into my creativity. Ever in love with puns, we called our choir ‘No Direction’ — but as a group of content creators, I think we’re anything but.
I think the passion that drives us is taking us in exactly the right direction.
What are you truly passionate about? Who inspires you to create more? Let me know so we can inspire each other!
My first view of Ronda was a row of cliffside houses.
They teetered on the very edge of a sheer drop, as if there was nothing to prevent these small white buildings from falling into the canyon 120 metres below.
In the early hours of a crisp January morning, we stood at a viewpoint on the opposite side and stared across the canyon. Gusts of wind rushed up the vertical crags to whip themselves through my hair. I felt invigorated and excited to explore this small Spanish city – particularly because I’d never heard of it before.
Anyone who knows me can attest to my obsession with Spain. Walking 400 km of the Camino de Santiago made me fall in love with the Spanish way of life, and I’m always keen to see more of the country – so when Jet2 invited me to the Costa del Sol to experience places like Malaga, Caminito del Rey and Ronda, I jumped at the chance.
Known as one of the oldest towns in Spain, Ronda is part of the Andalucia region in the south of the country, close to the Malaga coastline. The whole province of Malaga is dotted with little whitewashed towns sitting along the hillsides – but Ronda is one of the most beautiful.
It’s also one of the most dramatic.
Ronda’s infamous ‘Puente Nuevo’ – the ‘New Bridge’, despite being built in the eighteenth century – has been attracting tourists for years. It stretches across the El Tajo gorge, connecting the old and new parts of town together, and is a perfect spot to gaze at the almost alarming number of houses, hotels, bars and restaurants built into the sides of the canyon.
So in today’s Instagram age, you’d be expected to think that the bridge was the main reason people come to visit this city, right?
Actually, the most dramatic part of Ronda is just around the corner.
A history of bullfighting in Ronda
As our guide directed us towards the ‘Plaza de Toros’ bullfighting ring, my internal alarm bells started ringing. I may as well have had ‘ethical dilemma!’ emblazoned across my forehead.
I’ve never been to a bullfight, and have zero desire to ever witness one. Despite usually being willing to hear both sides of a contested story, the idea of watching the goring and eventual death of a bull at the hands of a bullfighter and to the roar of a cheering crowd is not my cup of tea.
While I grumbled internally, our group walked through an archway and stepped onto a vast circular expanse of sand. Hundreds of seats and arches surrounded us in a regulated pattern. At my feet were hoofmarks from two departing horses, who had trotted obediently through the wooden gates while flicking their manes at invisible flies.
It felt bizarre to be standing inside one of Spain’s oldest bullrings. Built entirely from stone in 1785, Ronda’s Plaza de Toros can seat 5,000 people and is also where the ‘modern’ school of bullfighting originated: on foot, rather than on horseback.
“In Spain nowadays there are around four hundred bull fighters,” our guide told us, “and twenty or thirty matadores are at the top level.” Like rockstars or celebrities, these fighters are scrutinised by the media and earn approximately 100,000 Euros per show for fifty shows a year.
Because Ronda only holds a few bullfights each September at the annual Feria Goyesca, the bullring is mainly used as a riding school and for tourists to visit. Today the arches were empty and quiet: there was an absence of adrenaline pumping through the stadium, and no leaden sense of death hung in the air.
Yet this building was constructed specifically for that type of atmosphere, and the uneasy silence was deafening. I couldn’t help imagining those horses with fire in their eyes, spittle flying from their mouths as they cantered past a furious baited bull.
Although Spain’s economical reasons for continuing the bullfights are clear – organisers rent the ring, pay for bulls and sell tickets for huge profit – the practice is nonetheless still losing popularity in Spain.
Thirty or forty years ago, many people didn’t have such fervent opposition to animal cruelty, whereas nowadays the younger generations aren’t attending bullfights. Some of Spain’s political parties are also expending a lot of energy to end the practice: in 2010 the province of Catalonia banned bullfighting, but recently the ban was overturned by Spanish courts claiming the tradition has too much cultural and historic value.
Spain’s current King Felipe VI has stayed diplomatically silent on the topic of bullfighting and doesn’t attend any fights, but his father King Juan Carlos was a vocal supporter of the ‘sport’. In a silent arena, I looked up at the Royal Box — the only part of the ring to feature any decorations — and imagined past generations looking to their country’s ruler for his reaction to the deathly spectacle in front of them.
Ronda’s reputation in the literary world
Outside the bullring, we stopped at a long stretch of paving stones with three faces etched into their surfaces: Pedro Romero, Ronda’s legendary bullfighter, along with his father and grandfather. Three generations of a Rondeño matador dynasty.
Beside the paving stones were two bronze busts: one of Ernest Hemingway, and the other of Orson Welles. Both these American celebrities held great fondness for Ronda. Hemingway’s long-standing passion for Spanish bullfights parlayed into a friendship with the biggest superstar matador of the time, Antonio Ordóñez, and its rumoured that Hemingway even used Ronda’s history in a brutal scene in his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, when villagers are killed by being thrown off a cliff.
Meanwhile, Orson Welles loved Ronda and the bullfighting culture so much that when he died, his ashes were interred by his surviving family at the aforementioned Ordóñez’s house close to the city.
The further we explored the city, the more I understood why Ronda has provided inspiration for many artists over the years.
Along with Hemingway and Welles, the German poet Rilke cracked a serious case of writer’s block here in 1912, and extolled the city’s virtues forever afterward – even coining Ronda’s famed description as the ‘City of Dreams’.
Ronda’s romance stems largely from its literary fame – and there’s no denying that the beauty of Ronda is inspirational. Everywhere I looked the city grew prettier: from red-tiled churches and groups of habit-wearing nuns, to horse-drawn carriages and streets lined with orange trees.
By the time we found a secret viewpoint from the rambling garden balcony of a priest’s retirement home called Casa don Bosco, I was utterly in love.
Coming to terms with negatives and positives in Ronda
When we eventually stopped for lunch at a restaurant opposite Plaza de Toros, our main topic of conversation was focused on the bullring’s violent history. All of us agreed that we didn’t support the idea of bullfights – and yet it was difficult to reconcile Ronda’s bullfighting fame with the city’s romantic atmosphere.
I couldn’t quite believe these two opposing elements paired up to make one whole city.
Part of me didn’t want my dislike for bull fighting to taint my impression of Ronda, so I decided to think about the topic in a different way. My mind conjured up the expression on our guide’s face as he talked about his country’s tradition. I thought of the tiny bullfighting museum just behind Plaza de Toros, featuring beautifully designed posters by different artists for the annual festival.
I remembered the intricate lace detail on the matador outfits, no doubt carefully stitched by an aged Spanish grandmother somewhere. The material now hangs safe behind glass, but some are complete with bloodstains from their once-injured matador owners.
While I still cannot support bull fighting or killing animals for sport, I know that this industry spans generations of history and is a traditional practice I can’t even begin to understand.
What I do know is that I adored my time in Ronda, and I’d love to return to this dreamy city and spend some more time exploring. And I do think it’s possible to enjoy a place like Ronda, separately from its modern day bullfighting reputation — but the city’s dramatic history shouldn’t be ignored either.
Have you ever visited Ronda? What are your thoughts on Spain’s bullfighting culture?
Disclaimer: my time in Ronda was courtesy of the fabulous Jet2Holidays, who thought I’d enjoy exploring this gorgeous city – and they were right!
After celebrating the New Year in Cuba, I’d spent two straight days flying from Havana to Toronto to London – and I was exhausted. Moreover, I was more than a little worried about how it would feel to be at home at the beginning of this new year.
The first year I’m facing without either of my parents alive.
It’s been three months since my dad passed away, and in that time I’ve had a rude awakening into what my new life looks like. Suddenly I’m the sole person responsible for the house I grew up in: I’m responsible for every physical object which represents the life I once shared with my mum and dad. It’s a huge realisation, and it’s utterly terrifying.
In a purely practical sense, I’ve also been forced into adulthood in the most mundane of ways – something which became rudely evident when the boiler began to flash an ominous red light on December 26th.
“At least it was working on Christmas Day!” my boyfriend said brightly, while I immediately panicked and tried to find a repairman. Luckily my dad, ever the pragmatist, had already paid for a year of insurance cover for his three year old boiler, and the plumber who eventually arrived to check it out told me that the replacement part would be ready in three or four days.
Great news, right?
Except a fortnight later, we got back from Cuba and walked into a freezing house in equally freezing winter temperatures, and so a boiler nightmare began.
The prospect of a month without heating
Over the next few weeks, I had five different boiler appointments which were booked then cancelled at the last minute by the repair company – and my confidence was repeatedly chipped away each time. My vague plan for the first months of 2018 had initially been to slowly and calmly begin ‘Working On The House’: namely, sorting through drawers and cupboards, bagging up unwanted clothes for the charity shop, re-organising the layouts of furniture and knick-knacks, and generally navigating how to find comfort in a space which is suddenly unfamiliar.
Instead, thanks to a mysteriously hard-to-obtain replacement boiler part (and a company who didn’t seem too bothered about it), my house was destined to be bone-cold and virtually uninhabitable for four straight weeks.
So I did the only thing I could. I wrapped myself in every layer of thermal clothing I owned, clambered into bed beneath three thick duvets, and I hid.
What makes a place ‘home’?
In May last year, before we knew my dad was going to die, I’d planned to move to Scotland and live with my boyfriend. Jamie’s been based in Glasgow for the last six years, and I was excited to explore a country I’d always adored but hadn’t spent much time in.
Except that after Dad’s death, the idea of relocating suddenly became much more overwhelming. His house had always represented long-term permanence and security, but now that’s been shaken. Suddenly London, and my life within it, feels acutely vulnerable.
And yet, mere months before, I’d been so keen to leave London! I’d wanted to break out of the city-wide suffocation and breathe properly in the open countryside. I’d wanted to have a fresh start in Scotland. I’d felt ready.
So a few weeks after my dad’s funeral in mid November, Jamie and I drove northwards: up through snow-laden fields and into the Scottish countryside. During a fortnight we visited a dozen properties, some for rent and others for sale, in the hope that we’d chance upon a place we might want to live.
We met most of the owners of these properties, and I was fascinated to see how all these people had decorated their homes to reflect their lives. There was the man with a thimble collection whose children had all emigrated to Australia and who’d hung his garage with Australian flags; the woman who worked for years with a camel rescue centre in Syria and filled her house with green palm fronds; the house with the bright orange conservatory, a gaggle of inquisitive geese, and a cat tunnel dug into the wall.
These families were relocating because of many reasons: illness, old age, an increasing need to be closer to loved ones. Some seemed more resigned than others to be moving on – and I understand why, because leaving a familiar way of life behind you can be terrifying.
But while we were far away from London, I began to have uneasy nightmares about my dad’s house. Each night my mind filled with scenes of break-ins, spontaneous fires, unlocked doors and a confusion of visitors arriving for unexpected house parties.
When I eventually came back to London in December, it was with a bitter sense of relief. I wanted to embrace a new life in Scotland – but I needed to be in my family’s house. After so many years of wanting to keep moving, all I want to do now is stay very still in a place of comfort, and wait for this grief to wash over me.
Life inside an ice house, and a sense of reclamation
Of course, a broken boiler made the grief process a lot more stressful.
Jamie’s job called him quickly back to Scotland, so for four weeks straight, I was suddenly isolated by myself in a strange nothing-space. I spent all my time in a living room stronghold of 10’C, warmed only by two electric space heaters and a hastily constructed fire; my body dressed in leggings and tracksuit bottoms, thick HeatHolder socks, thermal long sleeved tops, a woollen black turtleneck once belonging to my mum, and an Ebay-purchased heavy knit jumper.
Under my multiple duvets, watching my breath mist above my head, I thought long and hard about what this house signifies.
It’s a safe space for me to actively feel my grief at losing both my parents, sure: but it’s also filled to the brim with them. Every picture I didn’t choose to frame or hang on the wall is a reminder of them. Every colour of carpet, every curtain pattern, every lampshade, every decoration is proof that I’m living around their memories.
For better or worse, this house is mine now – and these reminders, which have the ability to be both positive and negative, aren’t going anywhere until I decide they should. And I get the strong sense that part of my healing process is to reclaim this house so it feels like it belongs to me.
So I began to think about lampshades, wall murals, framing my own pieces of art I’ve bought around the world. Changing the curtains. Buying a good mattress for the first time in my life.
And with this thinking came a sense of proactivity. After what felt like months of passive hibernation beneath the covers, I began to actively preserve myself against the cold.
I used towels from my dad’s scarily organised airing cupboard to cover the gaps at the bottom of each door in the house. I spent an evening clumsily sewing up an old sweatshirt of my mum’s, filling it with rice to make a draught excluder.
Copying what my dad did years ago with the draughty front door, I hammered pins into the doorframe of the living room and hung a scratchy mohair blanket to stop any cold air from getting in. My fire-laying and lighting skills improved with every evening’s attempt.
By the time the boiler was finally fixed by a fantastic engineer named Errol, I’d worked out the best methods to preserve what little warmth there was in my house. I’d also begun to understand the myriad of triggers for my grief.
As Errol stood on his ladder and peered inside the boiler, we talked about what it’s like to lose our parents. Errol’s mum had passed away the year before, and he knew exactly what was racing through my mind.
“You can’t get on with grieving your dad properly,” he said. “Not while you’re freezing by yourself in this house! You’ve really been through the wringer, haven’t you?”
Errol understood why this situation was so upsetting, and why my house felt so strange.
“You need to feel at home here,” he said, waving a screwdriver in his vehemence. “This needs to be your place. It’s your home now – even though you’ve lost your mum and dad.”
This house has always been my home
What does ‘home’ mean to you? Mine may no longer have my family in it – not physical people, at least. But there’s still heating and hot water (occasionally!), and there are all our familiar possessions. Belongings.
This is a place I belong to.
Regardless, sometimes this belonging feels a bit like being under house arrest. I’ve begun to have too many anxieties about a building I wasn’t really supposed to be living in right now. In the same way that I’m fascinated by people’s life stories illustrated in their houses, I’m scared of establishing my own story right here. I’m nervous of creating my own life inside a house which used to hold three people’s lives, intertwined around each other.
But then I remember there are almost thirty years of memories with my dad in these six rooms. Twenty of those years still involved my mum.
And without sounding trite, my parents didn’t raise me to crumble.
There’s no doubt that the grief process is going to be hard. I’ve already done it once before, and I’m not looking forward to it. But just like last time, I know that grief at its highest intensity doesn’t last forever. I can get through it, and with some self-care I know I will.
For now, I’ll be living mainly in London, visiting Scotland as often as I feel able, and spending time on short-term pursuits of happiness around the world. London is where my friends and community and familiarity are, whereas Scotland holds the promise of new horizons: a new life, when I’m ready for it.
So. I’ll reclaim this house to be my home. I’ll nurse my grief and regain my strength. I’ll find out what it means to be an adult orphan, and I’ll come to terms with it.
I’m battered, bruised and so very vulnerable – but I’m still here. And that’s a start.
Have you ever felt unsettled about your own home? Does moving house always contain emotional baggage for you? What does ‘home’ mean to you?
On October 20th this year he turned 79 years old, and I spent that morning trying to decide what was suitable to give him.
I hadn’t had time to buy him any presents, but an assortment of birthday cards which had landed through the postbox went into my bag. The day before, he’d mentioned what kind of cake he’d like – “Something creamy, Flor; something more sweetie than cakey – and coffee icing would be nice!” – and so I’d been checking the nearest corner shops to see if I could find the right one.
When I arrived at the hospice on his birthday, I realised I’d forgotten to bring him any flowers.
But when three of Dad’s closest friends walked into the room, there were suddenly dozens of them. Three different bunches; two kinds of tulips; a glass vase kindly lent by the hospice staff. I spent five minutes arranging and re-arranging the flowers on the windowsill so they looked as bright as they possibly could.
It’s been over a month since my dad passed away.
I don’t really know what’s happened in the days since – aside from the blur of bureaucratic activity which follows a death. Some are things I never knew about, and some I partly wish I’d understood beforehand.
Nobody tells you that its your decision to go to the hospice and see his body. Nobody prepares you for registering his death at a small council office with a terse woman who keeps framed photos of cats on the wall. Nobody warns you that the funeral home you’ve chosen could fill you with dread each time they inevitably phone with a problem. Nobody suggests researching these things better.
Somehow I planned a funeral. I spent days writing a eulogy which was about him, not just about my loss of him. I wore a recently-bought dress which I half-remember him saying he liked. I filled a hip flask with good Scottish whisky, a long-ago gift from some of Dad’s final year drama school students, and sipped it on route to the crematorium.
I am still in the shell-shocked stage, I think. The tears are there, but they only appear at little inconsequential moments: like the day I hung his pyjamas out on the line to dry in the sun and realised it was the final time.
I haven’t quite realised that he’s gone.
After so many weeks of tense anxiety spent half-watching the rise and fall of his chest, half-expecting a sudden dramatic moment to suddenly kill him, my dad died when I wasn’t there. He slipped peacefully away in a hospice bed when I was at home by myself.
I don’t yet know if I can quite accept that.
So. I am trying to move slowly. I am living moment to moment and thus carefully not embracing the full enormity of my situation, which I’ve decided is the best way to cope.
So how am I actually coping?
Luckily, I’m not alone in all of this.
My boyfriend Jamie and his gorgeously huge dog Ernie have been staying in Dad’s house – my house, now – since September, and together we’re reclaiming it. We’re rearranging how we exist within these rooms just enough to alter the way I perceive a building this full of memories.
In amongst this strange limbo period of nothingness, we distract ourselves with the softest and the calmest of activities.
We take Ernie to walk in the parks close by. We binge-watch The Walking Dead, Grey’s Anatomy, the Apprentice and Antiques Roadshow. We welcome in the autumnal winter which happened almost by surprise, countering the cold by lighting fires and curling up with cups of tea and blankets I bought in India years ago. I take death proceedings one thing at a time. One day at a time.
I don’t go upstairs much. There is an empty bedroom I feel strange standing in, as if the air outside is echoing around it and feeling for the gaps.
But when I do venture up there, I search for details. Looking at the smaller things is easier to handle than the whole big picture.
A post shared by Flora The Explorer (@florabaker) on Nov 20, 2017 at 7:11am PST
The body’s reaction to grief is bizarre. My emotions come in waves: nothing, then suddenly all at once. We cope like this because the sadness is too big to hold entirely.
It’s been so long since I’ve felt relatively ‘normal’ that it’s hard to realise what’s now in front of me. When I feel ready, I’m free to go back to my old way of life when I want to. I can start being myself again – except I’m so exhausted so much of the time. I scroll through social media like I always have, but now I feel barely any desire to be involved in it. Every post just seems pointless in comparison to Dad.
“This might be dangerous,” I think to myself. “This might herald the beginning of no longer living out my life online: no longer telling a group of people around the world what I’m seeing and doing and feeling.”
But it’s the ‘feeling’ part which stops me.
I still want to explore the world. There’s no doubt about that. I still want to photograph it. I still want to tell the stories I learn, and plot out new ones. I still want to share how my mind makes its connections. I still want to connect to the world itself, and the people in it.
There are moments when I feel my creativity come back to me. We listen to the radio and suddenly I hear something which inspires me: a word, a phrase, a story which needs to be jotted down so I can explore what it might mean later.
They are jewels, these moments. They remind me of how much I love, adore, need to create. They remind me there’s a world filled with similar souls who are already doing just that.
For the last eight months, I have lived with a stone in my mouth.
But during that time I’ve also been preparing my body and mind for these thoughts to become fact. I have been waiting for a long time — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s an education to know how the components of myself can pace back and not jump to conclusions. Not to rush. Not to push.
And that stone? That heaviness? It’s a feeling which hasn’t disappeared, but it’s been absorbed somewhat.
I am allowed to live my life again. Hurting, aching, mourning, perhaps – but mine.
My dad passed away on his 79th birthday.
He’d seen his friends, opened his cards, watched me arrange his flowers on the sill, eaten a few bites of tiramisu. He was very tired when I said goodbye, and just before midnight he slipped downward from sleep into something else.
The more I think about it, the prouder I feel. My forever neat and orderly dad, who was suffering from a debilitating illness that so cruelly forced him to lose control of so many aspects of his life, made an active decision to let go and pass away on his birthday. His final moments comprised an act worthy of theatre – and they made sense for a man who’d spent his entire life working on stage.
I will always need to talk about him. I know this second death of a second parent will undoubtedly shape my life yet again. But I think I need to focus on those things which bring me joy right now.
Finding flowers in the midst of winter. Playing with a dog too big to be called a puppy. Photos of my dad and I, two years ago on his birthday, standing at the top of an Austrian mountain together and looking ever so much alike.
This has been my life for two months now: since June, apart from brief escapes to Scotland, Italy, and the east of London.
I’ve relocated to the front room of my dad’s house. I’ve unfolded a dust-covered mattress from the confines of green sofa cushions, pulled it out, covered the thin striped material with a mattress topper bought off my ex-flatmate, and tried my best to make it feel like home.
This sofa bed is not exactly comfortable, either. I’m pretty sure it sits at a slant: I wake up multiple times each night with the uneasy sensation that my feet are higher than my head. I dream that I’m falling backwards.
Of course, my erratic sleeping might be to do with drinking too much coffee. It could also be due to the roll-ups I’ve taken to smoking covertly in the garden while sitting on a broken wooden bench under the night sky.
I use the time to stare up at stars, at slow moving planes, at sickly yellow clouds. Sometimes there are invisible foxes mewling in the bushes. One night a group of neighbours sang ‘Happy Birthday’ from far away.
There’s another explanation for my lack of sleep. It’s why I’m on the sofa bed in the first place.
My dad is dying.
Watching the people you love get sick is an awful experience. What’s worse is knowing they won’t get better – and it’s so frustrating and painful to hear responses from those who just don’t get it.
“I hope he’s on the mend soon!”
“We’re sending lots of get well wishes!”
Nope. He’s dying. My dad is definitely, diagnosably, dying.
I have to say this to myself because I need to time to adjust to the idea. I have to prepare myself as much as possible for what’s inevitable – and yet I can’t directly say it out loud, because it’s horrible and unexpected and so hilariously awkward. It cuts a conversation clean in two. People who actually take on the responsibility of discussing such a bombshell are fantastic – but even they eventually have to talk about something else.
Then again, those conversations aren’t exactly common because I don’t go out much now. I can’t. He needs me in the house.
Just two months ago, my dad was living by himself.
He could drive his car, go to the corner shop for a paper, move around his house. All of these things took time, effort and careful pacing, but it was all still possible.
Now he’s basically bed-bound. After eight weeks of watching his breathing get increasingly worse due to acute lung fibrosis, I’ve realised he now needs everything he uses during the day to be close to hand, just a few steps away from his bed.
This isn’t permanent. It can’t be. My life exists in another place – albeit one I’ve stepped unwillingly away from at the moment. My normal, real, loved life is travel and spontaneity, friends and photography, chaos and movement and excitement and challenges. Challenges I want to embark upon, not those which have been thrust on top of me with such force that I feel like my back might break.
Learning my ‘new normal’
Inside my dad’s house, the days blur into each other. Hours are the only unit of time I measure now: awake at 9am, a snatched period of semi-relaxation for coffee, music, typing, until Dad’s carer opens the front door at 11am and I know I need to shoulder my responsibilities.
Still. I sit and chat to him, hold his hand, do the household tasks and errands he only trusts me to do. I fetch and carry, change sheets, wash clothes: I do normal day-to-day housework on autopilot, trying my best to forget why I’m doing it. Trying to forget that he’ll never do these things again.
The carer visits again at lunchtime and comes for a final visit in the early evening. She cooks a frozen meal in the microwave as it’s the easiest thing for him to eat, makes him cups of tea, and provides us both with a much-needed distraction of another person to talk to.
When people ask me what is so difficult about all this, I can’t always pinpoint specifics. But I know the toll it’s taking. I clock-watch obsessively: not wanting to leave him alone upstairs for too long, but knowing that spending too much time with him zaps all of my energy. Watching his laboured breathing makes me scream inside. I recognise how sluggish my thoughts are, and how hard I find it to speak.
I don’t feel the caffeine buzz my body like I used to. I wake up exhausted. I move around the house all day like a ghostly shadow of myself. I say goodnight to him at 9pm and fall asleep on an uncomfortable sofa bed by midnight.
Some unexpected side effects
The very worst part for me in all this – selfishly, perhaps – is that I have no time for writing.
Before my dad got too sick, I was mid-blog-overhaul: working on resource articles and affiliate partnerships, really knuckling down to the act of making this passion of mine into something more professional. I was overwhelmed with ideas for my book manuscript too, and felt the sudden excitement of knowing just how I could make it great.
Now I’m terrified to write. The emotions which pour out of me when crafting every article are perhaps too much right now, and I also need careful, distraction-free alone time to work the way I want to.
I’m also terrified of losing my ability to write.
Before my mum died nine years ago I wrote poetry: reams of the stuff, couplets forming in my mind before I had time to jot them down. I adored the structure and the puzzle of poems so much that it was a complete shock to discover that my desire to write them vanished after her death. It took me a long time to fall back into writing anything at all, and poems were a victim of the fallout. I haven’t really written poetry since.
So this is why I’m writing here. I know it’s not about travel – sorry – but it’s necessary. It’s vital. It rises high above any of the vapid, internet-related bullshit of SEO and traffic: this is life and death, family and home, loss and grief, in all their purest forms. I’m losing my dad, after already losing my mum, and I feel so achingly lonely and suffocated and unable to cope.
What do you do with grief?
In moments of immense difficulty; in moments where your life is unrecognisable in the worst of ways; you simply have to draw strength from wherever you feel able.
At some point each day, I suddenly remember the world beyond the house and I step out into the light. There are lime green front doors and rows of potted plants on windowsills. Someone’s dug up a fresh haul of onions from a tiny vegetable patch in their front garden, the bulbs resting on an open tea towel laid out on the ground. I peek through a window to see a girl lovingly stroking a black cat.
I don’t know why things are the way they are. All these lives, connected by proximity and geography but strangers to me.
If there’s one thing the last nine years have taught me – between my mum’s sudden death and my dad’s impending one – it’s that I am a writer. So if writing about this process can help me through in any way possible, then I’ll do it in a heartbeat. And if sharing how I feel can help anyone else through their own journey of grief then I’ll do that too.
If I can’t travel abroad, what I can do is walk the streets around my dad’s house, and wander through the one park and two graveyards which sit close by. I can still take photos of the moments which move me. Search always for the little glimpses of light which serve as a reminder that things like this can happen; will always happen; must happen, sadly enough.
Death is a truth I’ve always known, and one I have to shoulder once again. As so many others do.
I sit in the cemetery beside my mum’s grave, on a slanted wooden bench placed for someone’s granddad. I don’t know who, but it’s been here ever since Mum’s funeral. Nine years. At once a lifetime and what feels like one drawn out breath.
I’m not doing this alone, however much it may feel like it.
I’m sleeping in my dad’s living room while he dies in the room above me. The buses move past on the street outside; people talk loudly on the pavement and leave empty bottles in our yellow rose bush. The world still moves, and so do I.
Writing it down gives me clarity. Sharing it gives me strength. Hopefully that’s enough.
I’ve been to a fair few music festivals in my time. The first was Exit festival in Novi Sad, Serbia, held inside a medieval fort; then I headed out to the infamous fields of Glastonbury in 2011, followed by the fancy Wilderness festival a few years ago (and again last weekend for the second time!).
I even visited my first Scottish music festival recently, which fulfilled all my expectations by featuring a wandering group of brass band players in full-on kilts.
But like most festival-lovers, I’ve never been involved with the inner workings of a festival.
Who actually runs them? How on earth do they manage to set one up and pull it off?
Arriving at the Cardross Estate
I first visited the site of Doune the Rabbit Hole one afternoon in May. The lord and lady who own the Cardross Estate invited us into their cosy kitchen, and over a bottle of red wine we chatted about festival preparations while a collection of dogs chased each other under the table.
Afterwards we walked through the fields outside the estate house and down to the riverbank amongst the sheep. So much space, and such stunning views.
I was hooked.
For each of my subsequent visits to the Cardross Estate since then, I’ve watched the place grow ever closer towards the third weekend in August – towards ‘The Festival’ – and I’ve unapologetically developed a case of festival fever.
I’ve wandered the stunning fields at Cardross, tracing in my mind’s eye where each stage and stall would eventually sit.
I’ve wandered down the tree-lined paths in the setting sun, and imagined groups of festival goers chilling out between performances.
I’ve spent evenings chatting with the folks who are building the festival up from scratch – and I’ve made immediate friendships with the estate’s resident dogs.
And the more festival-related people I meet, the more I feel sure of just how special Doune the Rabbit Hole really is.
The story of Doune
Doune the Rabbit Hole first started in 2010 as an intimate music-festival-slash-tea-party in the Scottish town of Doune (hence the puntastic name), and for the last seven years they’ve been celebrating the very best of Scotland’s independent arts scene with a number of unique factors…
A smaller capacity = more intimate performances
Doune the Rabbit Hole occupies a modest amount of land, and there’s a maximum capacity of a few thousand people – making it one of the UK’s smallest festivals. It’s worlds apart from the hundreds of thousands swarming the Glasto fields, and due to the small size it’s easy to recognise the same faces and start making friends.
The entire Doune experience becomes much more community-driven, much more quickly.
The homegrown ethos behind Doune is also really inspiring. It’s not a commercial festival at all: the focus is predominantly about fostering and promoting local Scottish talent and celebrating what this country has to offer in terms of arts and music.
Plus the joy of such a small audience capacity means you’re treated to virtually private performances from a stellar line up.
Who could ask for more?!
Doune’s decor is like a wonderland
Alice in Wonderland, eat your heart out: Doune is one arty place to spend a weekend.
The festival’s Wonderland vibe runs through the entire site: from the Jabberwocky stage to the props and decorations (and even an occasional surprise tea party), there’s a beautiful sense that something magical is happening around every corner.
The thousand year old oak trees may have something to do with it, too.
Everyone’s welcome – from families to dogs
There’s a strong focus on being inclusive at Doune, and every member of the family is welcome.
Camping areas are segregated, so families with young children can sleep away from the late night festivalers; all the food vendors have a £1 children’s portion on offer; and all the kids activities are meticulously planned and scheduled, making the site like one large playground.
All the food and drink served at Doune the Rabbit Hole comes from local vendors and suppliers, like cider from Thistly Cross, locally brewed beers from Williams Brothers, and food ranging from crepes and woodfired pizzas to locally sourced game and meat.
Yet the festival itself is wonderfully international
The primary focus of most festivals is the music – and Doune has a blindingly good line-up on offer for 2017, with many of the artists coming from as far afield as Norway, the US, Canada and Mali.
There’s a host of Scottish acts, including Idlewild’s Roddy Woomble, Meursault, PAWS, Pronto Mama and The Vegan Leather.
Liars: the New York art punks open the festival’s headlining slot on Friday night.
Songhoy Blues: a punk band from Mali who played a storming set at this year’s Glastonbury and BBC 6Music Festival in Glasgow, are headlining Doune as their ONLY Scottish gig.
Start to End: this covers collective who tackle a wide range of genres are performing Daft Punk’s Discovery on Sunday night.
Steve Davis: the six time World Snooker Champion – moonlighting as a Snookerstar DJ – will be putting his considerable DJ skills to the test when headlining the Baino stage on Friday night.
Holy Fuck: a group of Canadian electro-punks who toured with MIA.
Jenny Hval: an avant-garde Norwegian who plays electronic & melancholic pop.
The other artistic offerings are equally exciting
From comedy and film to spoken word, there’s a huge amount on offer at Doune. Here’s just a few of the folks I’m most excited to see:
A heartfelt and honest spoken word performer from the USA, whose piece ‘OCD’ went viral online recently. Have a watch here:
Neil Hilborn - "OCD" (Rustbelt 2013) - YouTube
Luke will write a story for you about anything you ask for. He writes stories for strangers in the street, in parks, on beaches and at festivals around the world using his typewriter: just give him a subject and he’ll type your own custom story for you right there on the spot!
This poetry, music film and spoken word event runs in Glasgow each month – and the Fail Better crew will be working their literary magic throughout the weekend at Doune.
CineMorr are a social enterprise bringing people together through cinema & film making, and they have a special cinema yurt to show their screenings.
The ‘NoMansLanding’ Dome
Initially devised to portray the experiences of soldiers during World War One, this incredible interactive artwork was first installed in the waters of Sydney Harbour in 2015.
It then journeyed around the world via a shipping container to end up in Scotland – and the crew at Doune will be re-purposing the acoustic abilities of the Dome for a musical experience like no other…
If the above isn’t quite enough, Doune the Rabbit Hole has a ton of extras on offer.
In the words of Jamie Murray, the festival’s founder: “It’s not just a music festival! We’ve got a huge kids space with multiple activities, amazing caterers, Williams Bros. and Thistly Cross, workshops for adults and kids, and glamping in yurts. This year we’ll also be hosting axe-throwing tournaments and getting some wild swimming on the go – adjacent to our mobile sauna, of course!”
Of course, there are also the moments which nobody can predict. Occurrences I’ve merely heard mention of – like the late night campfires, the tribal drumming circles, the early riser who wanders the grounds playing the bagpipes, and stories of a legendary chai tea tent.
I’ll keep my eyes peeled for the naturally hollowed-out oak tree filled with fairy lights, and the secret leafy glen hidden beside the river which serves as the entrance to a music tent too.
You’ll leave as part of the Doune community
From the lord and lady who own the estate, to the festival crew who work tirelessly throughout the weekend to make sure everything runs smoothly, everyone is welcome at Doune the Rabbit Hole, and everyone belongs. It’s a community which may only be visible for one August weekend – but it’ll get under your skin.
As Jamie says, “It’s pretty rare to find an event that embraces a family-friendly culture. There is a real sense of community-spirit at Doune the Rabbit Hole, and I guarantee you make friends for life.”
So although I don’t know what will happen at this year’s Doune the Rabbit Hole, I’m going to be there to find out.
There are multiple Doune Buses arriving at the site from Stirling train station, all of which are timed to meet popular trains from Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Perth. There are also direct buses from and to Glasgow.
Although running this site has led me to a number of unexpected job titles, I’ve never been able to call myself a ‘speaker’ before. It’s a new road — one I’m both nervous and very excited about.
So what’s the topic I’m attempting to fill forty five minutes of chatter with?
“Up A Creek Without a Paddle: Travel Tales & Fails From a Solo Female Traveller”
At first, I figured I should be planning a talk which made me sound like a hardened traveller — but once I realised I was on a programme alongside ‘real’ adventurous women (like cycling through dense Indian jungle or motorbiking across Iran), I decided it would be better (and probably funnier) to tell some stories about the bizarre travel experiences I’ve had around the world.
More importantly, to address the fact that things can – and often do – go wrong!
Like being forced to walk/hitch rides for 100km when striking fishermen close the border…
But what’s been interesting is that in the process of writing an outline for this talk, I also began to think about all the ways travel has changed me. Travel ‘fails’ don’t necessarily mean something negative, either. As I jotted down various events to talk about, I started noticing a pattern.
The bigger, scarier, more adventurous and more ‘out of my comfort zone’ an experience had been, the more memorable and life-changing it was.
How adventurously do you live your life?
Being ‘adventurous’ can be defined completely differently from one person to the next.
Some of us want to do every physical challenge possible, but are terrified of travelling alone. I used to hate roller coasters with a passion but was supremely smug about my ability to watch any horror movie while my friends screamed and ran out of the room.
We all have strengths and weaknesses. It’s worth recognising the benefits of both.
The other day, a writer I follow on Twitter asked her followers a question.
What’s something you feel good about having done? (Small/big/long past or recent/for someone else/others/yourself).
To be able to compliment ourselves – hell, just to treat ourselves more nicely – is something everyone should feel comfortable with doing. We deserve a bit of love, particularly when we’re going through something which makes us feel vulnerable and small and unsure.
So what makes the following stories particularly adventurous?
Well, it’s not just physical or daredevil activities which require bravery. Often it’s the smaller parts of life which really challenge us — mentally and emotionally, as well as physically.
And more than that, each of these stories have helped to shape me. They’re moments I’m extremely proud of, and it’s worth a lot to actively recognise that.
1. Walking the Camino route halfway across Spain
When I decided to walk the Camino, I readily assumed I’d be able to get myself geared up in time. What I didn’t account for was my love of procrastination – something which marred the entire project before it had even started.
Thankfully when I finally bit the bullet and caught a thirty hour bus from London to Leon (don’t follow my example), my Camino proved better than I could have hoped – but it unnerved me to realise how close I’d come to quitting the whole idea.
Four hundred kilometres later, I’d learned so much about the kindness of strangers and the value of community – and I also discovered my body is a lot stronger than I’d thought.
Enough so that I should have trusted in myself much more from the start.
Of course, part of the job description as a travel writer is to actually ‘experience’ what the world has to offer – but I was secretly terrified of throwing myself at the mercy of the Arctic Ocean.
What if my heart stopped because of the cold? What if I drowned?
As it turned out, the exhilaration and adrenaline from racing into the icy sea was like nothing I’ve ever felt before. Moreover, I knew I’d achieved something I hadn’t expected to even attempt, let alone enjoy – and it opened up a world of possibilities.
The photos were pretty spectacular, too.
3. Skydiving over the Kenyan coastline
I’d just arrived in Kenya (literally that morning) when a group of the volunteers I’d just met mentioned they were off to skydive at Mombasa beach. I was eighteen and nervous about making new friends with this big group of Aussies, Americans and fellow Brits, all of whom had been volunteering in Kenya for at least a month together.
So I guess you could say I skydived for the first time because I wanted to be accepted. I wanted them to think I was cool.
A blurry photo that still means so much!
While this obviously isn’t the best reason to challenge yourself, it’s nevertheless been something which has always stuck in my mind.
Since that first skydive, every other adventure sport, adrenaline-rushing experience I’ve had has been on my OWN terms – be it paragliding in Ecuador, caving in Bolivia, scuba diving or white water rafting in Australia. Every time I’ve considered the idea of backing out, and every time I’ve decided it’s worth doing.
I even skydived for a second time a few years later.
What I do know is that the ceremony occurred at the exact right time in my life.
Then again, the actual ayahuasca experience as it was happening was pretty brutal. Vomiting and hallucinations, a complete deconstruction of what it meant to be ‘myself’, and the strangest and most surreal night I’ve ever had.
Ayahuasca is a scary experience, and not one to be taken lightly. In fact, if I’d fully known what was in store I think I might have thought twice about drinking. But because of the positive after-effects it led me to a second spiritual ceremony with San Pedro a few weeks later, and it served to open up my mind to the idea that a positive mental outlook can actually affect your life.
Among other things.
5. Perpetually boarding planes despite my flying phobia
It’s a fear that’s only got worse with time: the older I get, the more I worry that turbulence is going to cause my death.
It’s also a very common fear, I know: and because travel is an intrinsic part of my profession, I’ll have to keep swallowing the fear as best I can.
This same attitude goes for a lot of common fears and phobias, which many people won’t outwardly admit to in their daily life. Instead, they’ll catch buses which teeter on the edge of steep cliff drops; wiggle their way through narrow spaces in underground caves without fuss; and feel that same dreaded sense of doom when someone’s dragged past them at airport security.
We can’t avoid our fears arising. What we can do is accept their existence and try to live fully in spite of them.
As a result, every time I get off a flight I inwardly congratulate myself because I know that the more irrational part of my fear hasn’t won out.
6. Spending 18 months becoming fluent in Spanish
When I arrived in South America, I could barely speak a word of Spanish. Six months in, I was still pretty rubbish at the language – but over that year, I slowly realised how big an impact fluency would have on my life.
Not just when travelling, but in general.
I’ve always hoped I could one day be bilingual, but throughout school I didn’t really put the required effort in. Once I understood that total immersion was the way I’d learn best, however, everything changed.
Yet there’s a mental challenge which comes with voluntarily putting yourself in such a vulnerable situation.
We were lucky. Amongst three thousand naked bodies, not one person was insulting to another, and as far as I know every participant walked away feeling stronger, freer and more confident about themselves.
8. Cutting all my hair off in an Indian bathroom
After a month of travelling in India’s soporific, suffocating heat in 2012, I made a decision to cut off my hair.
This wasn’t taken lightly: my hair had been shoulder-length or longer for the majority of my life, and I wasn’t sure how it was going to behave when suddenly cut to just beneath my ears. But I’d had enough of it – so one night in a homestay, an Australian friend borrowed a pair of scissors from the kitchen and began snipping.
It was absolutely liberating. I felt like I was taking control.
Only later did I realise how much I hated having short hair. It stuck out like a triangle and no amount of styling attempts would make it look acceptable in my eyes.
The funny thing, though? Eventually I just had to deal with it. My perception of myself was infinitely less forgiving than other people’s opinions of me, and because there was nothing I could do to fix my hair in the middle of the Indian mountains, after a while I didn’t care as much.
I admitted to myself that, for once, my mental health was more important than my love of travel.
Recognising my needs for their fundamental importance is something I’m hugely proud of. It’s not easy to do – and it’s also not easy to speak about publicly, when years of social conditioning has made anything mental-health-related seem like a taboo subject.
Happily enough, the more I talk about mental health, the more I feel connected to other people. It seems like expressing your vulnerabilities can often lead to something much more positive.
10. Being publicly vulnerable by writing about myself online
When I think about it, this site is also something which has been hugely adventurous in its own way.
I know a lot of bloggers who actively choose to keep their private life private, and don’t talk about their personal feelings online. I’ve found this isn’t what works for me: in fact, it’s almost the opposite.
To be going through something life-changing and devastating as the imminent loss of another parent has made me all the more in need of support from my virtual community. Sharing that here has alleviated so much stress and made me feel loved and cared for.
A year later, I travelled to the Arctic Circle because of it.
If that’s not an obvious reward for challenging yourself and being adventurous, I don’t know what is.
11. Still to come: speaking about my travels at a festival
Despite chatting away on Instagram Stories on a regular basis, I’m still not that familiar with public speaking – so my talk at Wilderness Festival this weekend is no doubt going to be another challenge.
Luckily, I’m more than eager to rise to it.
I figure that if I held a snake the last time I was at Wilderness, I can probably manage to hold an audience together…?!
If you’re heading to Wilderness Festival then please keep an eye out for me! I’ll be down by the Filson campfire at 2pm on Sunday – but I’m also hopefully..
It’s probably the closest thing to a real-life fairytale I’ve ever encountered, and it takes place in the middle of the rainforest in Far North Queensland, Australia.
Our starting point is an unexpected location, though. We pull into a tarmac car park beside the highway where white cars shimmer in the heat and walk beneath a row of metal letters, their edges slightly crumbling with rust.
We keep on going down a small dirt track, letting the tree branches knit themselves closer and closer together as we step deeper inside the forest. The sounds of the outside world fade away: car engines and human chatter replaced by bird calls and the breeze moving through the leaves.
And then we see it.
At the edge of a clearing is a giant waterfall cascading over soft rock and splashing to a lake below. We’ve found the centrepiece of Paronella Park – the ruins of a castle built almost a hundred years ago, which have lain abandoned for half that time.
But now the castle is coming back to life.
The century-long history of Paronella Park
In 1925, a young Spaniard named Jose Paronella arrived in Australia. It was his second visit to the continent, and he’d decided to start a new life in Queensland along with his new bride, Margarita. Back in his Spanish homeland Jose had originally trained as a pastry chef, but during three years spent working in Australia he’d become a wealthy man.
Now Jose was planning to recreate a dream he’d had since childhood. Thanks to countless stories his grandmother told him about Spanish history, Jose had decided to build a replica of Spain in Queensland: his own recreation of a Spanish castle for other people to enjoy.
And that’s what he did.
Despite having little experience in construction, Jose Paronella bought five hectares of virgin land at Mena Creek Falls – much of it covered in a tangle of trees and vines – and began to build.
The resulting structures which sprang up were not just his dream castle, but also botanical gardens and tennis courts, a cafe and a grand staircase, and even a ballroom which doubled up as a theatre and cinema.
Because the famous Mena Creek waterfall provided ample opportunity for swimming, Jose built picnic tables on the ground beside it along with diving platforms, a toilet block and a set of changing cubicles nearby (which guests could pay to use!).
If you haven’t already realised, this man was one hell of an entrepreneur.
Before long the park had attracted curious visitors. Paronella became known as the Pleasure Gardens of Cairns, and each week there were groups of people eager to ride boats around the lake, swim beneath the water falls, and dress up on weekend evenings for dances, movies and music concerts under the stars.
Jump forward almost a hundred years though, and today’s lost world of Paronella looks quite different to Jose’s initial dream.
Now the sloping pathways lead past thundering falls and toward a steep flight of narrow stairs, their bannisters covered with ivy and twisting vines.
At their base are heavy stone tables, some of them cracked and most covered with layers of spongy moss. It’s almost too easy to imagine plates and picnic baskets laid out on top; and if I squint at the falls beyond I can half-see a rowing boat filled with excited guests.
It’s as if the ghostly guests of Paronella Park’s past are still just around the corner.
As we wander further through Paronella Park, I begin to see this place as more than just a set of abandoned ruins.
Of course there’s something undeniably magical about discovering a lost jungle world– particularly when it looks like a modern-day Angkor Wat – but the human touch here is undeniable too.
Our guide tells us that the Grand Staircase was actually used as the main thoroughfare to carry countless bags of sand and cement around the site. I skim my fingers over the rough surfaces of the bannisters and balustrades, all of which are covered in fingermarks from Jose’s own hands.
I start imagining Jose Paronella himself, valiantly striding through tree-lined pathways as he planned out his legacy.
An extremely ambitious man, Jose seemingly always had a new invention in mind: everything from creating a hydro-electric plant to power the park to attempting an underground aquarium by slotting fishtanks into earth walls he carved out of a tunnel – and when that failed, he used the humid earth to grow mushrooms instead.
When word spread about the crazy Spaniard building a castle in Queensland, a local municipal department even gifted Paronella Park with thousands of exotic and native plants, including hundreds of Kauri trees which can live for two thousand years.
Although he must have planted them with the knowledge that he’d never actually see them grow, Jose seemed certain that his park would live on despite him – and he was absolutely right.
The rediscovery of Paronella Park
Jose sadly died from cancer in 1948, and after the park changed hands a few times it eventually fell into disrepair. The jungle began to reclaim it.
For almost thirty years Paronella was forgotten, until a Perth-based couple named Mark and Judy Evans came looking to buy a caravan park.
The estate agent suggested a small piece of land which included some castle ruins hidden in the tangled undergrowth – and just like that, Mark and Judy found themselves the new owners of a lost civilisation.
When they realised how incredible this place was, the couple came up with a plan to restore the park to its former glory in whatever way they could. The paths have been cleared and the gardens reconstructed; the family’s cottage has become a museum filled with artefacts and memorabilia; and the park is becoming a popular wedding venue.
The arrival of a long-lost Paronella relative
The only thing missing from the restoration was history, as the Evans’ didn’t know what stories the park could still be hiding from them. Everyone they asked said that the park’s original owners had all disappeared – until one day, when an old lady arrived at the gates.
As Mark welcomed her to the park and asked if she’d like to visit, the woman replied,
“Actually, this was my father’s park. I’m Teresa, his daughter. I haven’t been back here for forty years.”
Thanks to Teresa filling in the gaps, Mark and Judy were able to begin constructing a mental picture of the people who built Paronella Park.
A vulnerable, nature-powered park
Despite the restorations, Paronella is sadly still extremely vulnerable. The landscape which Jose chose is built on a cliff, and the propensity for cyclones and flooding in Far North Queensland means there’s always a danger of nature wreaking havoc on the park.
In 1946, it was flooded by thirty feet of water and was precipitous in the park’s eventual closing by Jose Paronella; and since Mark and Judy resurrected Paronella in 1993 there have already been three separate cyclones which have knocked down walls, taken off roofs and threatened them with extreme flooding yet again.
The entire park is powered by nature, and despite the resulting beauty it’s also extremely likely that everything could vanish tomorrow.
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What’s fascinating though is how different generations view and experience this place. Jose had initially envisaged Paronella Park as a well-kept set of gardens complete with outdoor entertainment, yet by the start of the 1960s people had TVs and their own local cinemas which meant the park’s visitor numbers started to drop.
Strangely enough, allowing the forest to take over the park for a few decades has meant a resurgence in tourism. Nowadays this part of Far North Queensland is attracting visitors precisely because it’s a lost, forgotten place to be explored.
Australia’s very own Angkor Wat.
If you’ve got a dream, hard work does pay off
Jose might not have expected his park to end up exactly like this, but his dream to create a place of magic in the rainforest has stood the test of time.
I’m still amazed that more people don’t know about Paronella Park. Then again, there’s something rather special about it remaining a secret.
Have you ever found a place like this on your travels? What do you think of Paronella Park?
NB: My travels in Australia were thanks to Visit Queensland – but the excited scribblings about Paronella Park all come straight from me. (As did the many extra hours I forced our group to wander the park because I simply couldn’t get enough…)
Two weeks ago, while walking through my local East London park on the way to see my therapist, I opened up Instagram Stories and I started to talk.
I told an unknown number of potential viewers a truth: a collection of facts which I’ve been keeping quiet for months now.
My dad is really sick.
He’s not getting better.
My mum died eight years ago, and now the same thing is happening again.
I’m scared, obviously – but more importantly? I’m done with not being honest.
Over the next twenty-four hours, dozens of messages popped into my Instagram inbox. Some were real life friends, some were acquaintances and many were strangers. All of them said the same thing, and all of them were so kind and concerned that it made me want to cry.
We’re so sorry. If you need anything, please just ask. We’re here for you.
The world of the online community
This online world we inhabit is a strange one.
For the last decade I’ve lived out a large part of my life on the internet – and I don’t just mean professionally. Nowadays, many people would define their own personal communities as being both the locally-based friends they see each day or each week, and those who live far away enough to require staying in mainly virtual or digital contact.
As a traveller, many of my closest friends either live halfway around the world or are off traversing different countries to the one I’m currently in. It means many of my friendships are maintained thanks to a combination of Facebook chat, Instagram Stories, pre-organised Skype dates, delayed WhatsApp messages and lengthly emails.
Friends I met in India are scattered all over the place now!
But when you’re a blogger, or someone using their online self from a business perspective, suddenly the concept of community can shift.
What is our real goal for building a community?
Behind the scenes of social media, one of the most important things we look at is our numbers. It’s a community made of statistics: unique visitors and newsletter subscribers, Facebook followers and Instagram commenters, all compiled into Google Analytics bar charts which dictate whether or not a company will want to work with us.
For bloggers, ‘community’ has become something we chase after because we know it’s important – but I’m not sure what our ultimate end goal is anymore.
Surely it’s more valuable to simply have a community itself, rather than obsessively counting the members within it?
I’ve always been scared of being alone
Growing up in London, I never really knew my neighbours or hung out with the kids on my street. Our family was always small and I’m an only child, so I knew it was basically up to me to expand my social circles.
When I first started blogging, I was really excited by the prospect of fostering some sort of online community with strangers-turned-readers. I remember noticing the same names in the comments sections of different articles of mine, and I realised that some people were regularly invested in what I had to say.
But I didn’t know (or perhaps, didn’t quite believe) that their interest stretched to actually caring about me.
The other result of becoming a blogger was the discovery of hundreds of other bloggers who I was able to network with: people who shared my passions for travel and writing, and who understood how to navigate this online world more than I currently did.
As my blogging readership grew, my virtual community on this site and social media became more apparent. I’m in no way a big blogger, but I do occasionally get recognised – and it’s always really bizarre.
Once it was a curious expression on a girl’s face in a London yoga class before she whispered my name across the room; another time I heard a joyful shout from a backpacker when hitchhiking along Colombia’s Caribbean coast.
People who read you think they know you.
And thanks to the internet, I guess to a certain degree they do.
Who we are online is one thing. Perhaps a more pertinent question is why we’re actually online in the first place.
At our most basic level, we all crave interaction with others. It might be because we’re seeking validation, sharing an opinion, bolstering our insecurities or venting our grievances: but it’s still predominantly aboutbeing connected to people.
So sometimes, when real life pushes itself sharply into focus, our immediate reaction is to be brutally honest with our communities.
A problem shared is a problem halved
Everyone has their own methods of coping with life-changing situations. But although many people have told me I’m being brave for talking publicly about all this, I honestly don’t see it like that. It’s an intrinsic need to speak up.
During the two weeks when my mum was dying in late 2008, my house remained virtually empty. This isn’t necessarily either a bad or a good thing: I just didn’t know I was allowed to ask people to be there for me. I was twenty years old. My dad’s way of coping was to keep things private. I went along with his decision.
When my mum died I felt like an outsider in too many situations: I knew my tears would drag a conversation down and make people feel awkward, but I also knew I couldn’t avoid talking about what had happened. It was too all-consuming. And it wasn’t fair to me, or to her memory.
Perhaps it’s because I’ve been talking to a therapist since last year, but at this point in my life I’m very conscious of my mental health and my own specific needs.
I’m moving out of my East London flat and back in with my dad. I’ve suddenly taken on a huge and unexpected amount of responsibility. I’m facing a heart-breaking, life-changing event. Now I’m asking for the help I know we both need.
Even so, it’s not something that comes too naturally.
I’ve had to pull myself firmly into adulthood, making phone calls to solicitors and hospitals and palliative care teams. I’ve set up a network of neighbours and my dad’s friends who can help me manage things.
And by doing this – by making myself vulnerable, asking for help, and realising that help is actually appearing – it feels like people actually care. Like my dad and I matter enough that people are willing to go out of their way to make sure we’re as OK as we can be.
And I feel like I’m not quite so alone because of it.
The importance of asking your community for help
I’m growing increasingly aware of the pitfalls of an online world. Attached to our phones and our screens like we are nowadays, I feel strongly that our virtual connections often eclipse our real-life ones, meaning there’s every chance that we forego strengthening the latter in favour of the former.
But because I’m acutely aware of how my dad’s situation is affecting me, every time something happens, I tell someone. It might be a vague tweet or a suggestive Instagram post — it might be a copy-and-pasted text message I quickly send to my core friends, my own little personal army — or it might be an urgent impromptu phone call to hear a real voice of someone I love calming me down.
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Until very recently, I’ve felt alone and overwhelmed by all of this.
It seemed like I was expected to know how to handle it – and moreover, that I should automatically be strong enough and able enough to handle it, which of course made me feel worse.
But even a few minutes of confession on Instagram has been enough to reassure me that there are people who care. It’s amazing how supportive an online network of virtual strangers can be – but I guess we’re all people behind these screens, and we all understand what it’s like to go through pain and fear.
So what I really need to say is thank you.
If you’re reading this, you’re part of a community I didn’t really realise I had – and I feel so incredibly privileged to see the full importance of that.
This community, this support network, is waiting in the wings for you. For all of us. It’s just a matter of asking for help.
NB: This article is part of a new series called ‘Behind The Blog’ — where I delve into all the bizarre elements of living out your life online. Keep an eye out for further articles on this topic!
He’s a seven year old white-haired golden doodle (a retriever crossed with a poodle, in case you didn’t know). He’s huge, fluffy, insanely friendly, and a lot of the time he lives in Scotland.
Those of you following me on Instagram might have seen this adorable creature on my Stories from time to time. He’s been in London occasionally, racing around wide open parks in the East end, and he’s appeared in the horse box during a music tour with a Chilean band (when there definitely wasn’t quite enough room for him).
But the last time I went to visit Ernie, we spent a week exploring Stirlingshire.
Stirlingshire, nestled between the lowlands and highlands of Scotland, is a new part of the country for me. It’s probably most famous for the imposing Stirling Castle, which sits at the summit of a flat-topped hill and can be seen through car windscreens for miles around, but it’s equally well known for sites like the National Wallace Monument, the Battle of Bannockburn’s battlefield, and the stunning Dunblane Cathedral.
Stirling Castle looking beautiful
But I wasn’t really in Stirlingshire to see the official tourist attractions. Instead, we were off adventuring – by which I mean piling into a converted van and turning our wheels towards the lochs and the rolling hills; towards open farmland, estate houses owned by lords and ladies, and picking our way through abandoned buildings.
And Ernie the dog was leading the way throughout.
A small aside about me and dogs
I’ve always thought I wasn’t a dog person. Historically, that’s true enough: when growing up I registered the childhood animosity between those who loved dogs versus those who loved cats, and seeing as I was besotted with my family’s cat, it felt obvious that dogs and I would never get on.
When I travelled to India in 2012 however, something changed. I watched my dog-loving friend Bianca patiently stroke and care for the poor strays trotting around the street who clearly idolised her for it – and something suddenly slotted into place.
I realised that dogs are awesome.
Ernie dancing with a friend at a music festival. He’s the size of a small human.
Before I began spending time with Ernie, of course, I’d never realised how much dog ownership impacts your life. Asking London pubs about their dog policies and Googling what types of London transport will allow dogs on board is an entirely new avenue for me – and the resulting answers can definitely change how you travel.
Luckily it seems like the majority of Scotland is dog friendly, to the extent that cafe owners and pub landlords get over-excited when they spot this giant dog lolloping towards them. Every place we visited in Stirling had their own unique reception for Ernie – like these seven spots!
1. Boating across the Lake of Menteith
Our first excursion into the sights and sounds of Stirlingshire was riding a little boat to Inchmahome Priory, an old set of ruins which sit in the middle of the Lake of Menteith.
Apparently, the Lake of Meneith is the only lake in Scotland!… Except nobody seems willing to explain quite why it’s known as a ‘lake’ (the English word) instead of a ‘loch’ (the Scottish word). This site tries to explain, but I’m still confused.
For us, it was enough to soak up the sunshine and watch Ernie gallavanting around the tall grass, occasionally disturbing couples having romantic moments on photogenic benches.
2. Lunch at Mhor 84
Ernie practically dragged me in through the door of Mhor 84, a hotel and restaurant which used to be an unassuming roadside inn but after a compete overhaul now serves up one of the best Full English breakfasts I’ve honestly ever tasted.
Ernie was in heaven – first by making friends with all the dogs behind the bar and their owners too, and then by trying his damnedest to look adorable enough for a slice of sausage.
I’m pretty sure he got some with that face.
3. Wandering the little town of Callander
Close to the entrance of the Trossachs National Park, Callander feels like a quintessentially Scottish town. Wherever I looked I saw signs for tartan, butcher windows filled with haggis, and sweetshops selling Scottish tablet.
We also picked a pretty stunning day to visit.
Ernie’s escapades took us past a river filled with very tempting ducks and up a flight of hillside steps, before heading straight down again into Callander’s high street.
Ernie even managed to make friends with a dog who looked extremely similar to him – and as they happened to meet outside a whisky shop, there was every reason to quickly pop in and try a few wee drams.
It would have been rude not to.
4. Discovering Rob Roy’s grave
Close to Callander, and just outside the tiny village of Balquidder, I spotted a little churchyard and a sign for Rob Roy’s grave.
After we let Ernie go bounding through the churchyard in the drizzling grey rain, we stood at the graveside of this famous Scottish outlaw and folk hero, looking at the pennies and scraps of ribbon which had been left by visitors and wellwishers.
5. Exploring an abandoned old hotel
Eventually we got off the beaten track and let Ernie’s doggy senses guide us. Close to the end of a forest-lined loch we spotted an abandoned hotel, all gaping floors and broken rafters, and couldn’t help ourselves.
We snuck through an open window, vaguely attempted instructing Ernie not to follow, and then realised how redundant that idea was.
(Let’s just say there’s a lot more I want to write about this house and what we learned inside it… So I’ll leave that story for another day.)
6. Playing fetch in a loch
Down by the loch itself, we tried improving Ernie’s swimming capabilities by throwing sticks for him to fetch.
And this is where one of my favourite qualities about Ernie comes to the fore: no matter where he is, he always seems to utterly commit to enjoying himself.
7. Setting up a music festival
It’s a similar situation at one of Ernie’s regular hangouts in Stirlingshire: the Cardross Estate, a beautiful house set on working farmland where a music festival named ‘Doune the Rabbit Hole’ takes place each August.
‘Doune the Rabbit Hole’ has been running for the past eight years (although this is the first year I’ll be attending!), and it’s now grown to the point where preparations are usually always happening around the site.
As far as Ernie’s concerned, it means lots of dog lovers to stroke him, lots of dog friends to hang out with, and plenty of happily grazing sheep which he can casually edge a little too close to and be sternly commanded back again.
For me, it was a chance to see the world through his eyes: how he immediately socialises with everyone he possibly can, being insatiably happy and enjoying life in the absolute present moment.
Seeing the world through a dog’s eyes
Each morning, Ernie’s awake and out the door with boundless energy, and each night after a day of exploration he curls up happily to sleep near the humans he loves.
He dares to do things he’s unsure of – swimming in lochs, exploring abandoned buildings, even sitting underneath tables with bacon on – because the people he listens to say it’s a good idea. Some of those experiences might make him stronger.
Problems and difficulty don’t last long for Ernie, either. In fact, the only time I’ve ever seen him unhappy was when another dog took over his rightful place in the van’s driving seat.
Have you ever seen a more mournful face?
I’m dealing with a lot at the moment. Things are getting serious again, and I’m trying my absolute best to take each day as it comes. I’m thinking about life a bit more like Ernie undoubtedly does: stoically dealing with difficulties whenever they appear, but always seeing the positives as their bright, shining selves.
And there’s no doubt I’ll be back in Scotland again soon – I haven’t even made it into the city of Stirling to explore yet. I’ll have to ask Ernie to show me around next time.
Have you ever explored a new country with a dog? Do you have any more travel tips for Stirlingshire or Scotland?